In the southern hemisphere and the southern states of Australia and NZ in particular, there is no denying that winter has arrived. In the natural world, grey skies are accompanied by regular rain showers and icy winds; there is constriction all around us, as the leaves on the trees curl up, brown and fall to the ground. There is constriction inside us too, as we hug our limbs close to our bodies, wrap ourselves in warm clothes and emotionally and energetically bunker down.
The sharp turn from the yang of summer to the yin of winter is a strong motivator to adopt appropriate practices to support ourselves throughout the cold season. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and Ayurveda (the medical arm of yoga) are closely linked therapeutically, and they both provide clear instructions on practising mindfully during one season to prepare for the next. Here’s some seasonally appropriate ideas that you might like to incorporate into life and into your yoga practice this winter:
Stay warm – turns out grandma was right!
It might sound obvious, but now is the time to increase the temperature in the yoga room. No need to go overboard though. Enjoy layering up with long-sleeve tops and pants first. As you get warmer through the course of your movements, remove some layers and then replace them at savasana time. Many of us fail to cover up adequately for savasana or meditation, even during the warmer months. We quickly cool down once we cease moving and this can be a major distraction during meditation.
Pay particular attention to your kidney area (just above your lower back area) and your belly, especially if you’re female. It turns out that grandma was onto something when she said tuck your shirt in! The wisdom of TCM tells us that our kidneys are the home of our life chi or life energy. We are thought to be born with a certain amount of life energy which is exhausted by over-extending ourselves, but may be preserved by living a balanced life. Our kidney health ultimately determines how gracefully we age, therefore, looking after our kidneys is immensely important. In winter, spend more time resting and getting good quality sleep. Drink lots of warm fluids, more than you think you need, and keep your kidney area warm by covering that area, especially when outdoors.
Don’t ignore your belly area in the cold weather either. Keep the damp and wind away from your abdomen as the female reproductive organs are especially sensitive to cold. When we practise yoga and other exercises, when we breathe mindfully and even when we apply heat to our bodies, we increase energy and circulation. The movement of healing fluids, such as blood and lymph, are important for ongoing health and healing and can help to down-grade feelings of menstrual pain and discomfort.
Tune into winter’s dark arts – with seasonally appropriate activities
The energy of winter is dark, cold, wet and damp but it is also grounding, nurturing, reflective and rejuvenating. During winter, the natural world contracts into a sleep-like state with much repair going on beneath the surface of the earth in preparation for spring. We, too, use sleep as time to repair damage to tissues, nerves and to reset our brains. Think of sleep as moisturiser for your nervous system! Good-quality sleep is an opportunity to rest and rebuild all throughout the year, and whilst winter is not about sleeping more, the obvious darkness might help to build better sleep patterns.
Grounding yoga practices such as Yin or Restorative yoga or even simple legs-up-the-wall pose might help, as a prelude to bedtime. Try using this time to go to bed early, read a book you’ve been meaning to get to, or use quiet time to write reflections, be creative or study something new. In the hour before bed, try to avoid social media and all screens to reduce the impact on our nervous system and to avoid blue-light disrupting the hormones of sleep. Use your phone wisely to listen to appropriate podcasts, music or doing guided breathing practices and meditations.
Pay attention to your Yin tissue
During winter, also pay particular attention to your yin tissues, such as your fascia, ligaments and tendons, with seasonally appropriate yoga classes. When it’s cold, these tissues feel extra tight and tense, so be especially careful to warm up the whole of the body during yang-inspired, vinyasa yoga classes to prevent soft tissue injuries. Work on these yin tissues in Yin yoga classes that reflect the dark, nurturing and restorative elements of Winter.
Choose meditation and mindfulness to restore energy levels
Winter is also a naturally conducive time for meditation and mindfulness. If you’ve never practised these before, start with a guided choice, such as Yoga Nidra or loving kindness meditation. You’ll find plenty of free options available online or ask your favourite yoga teacher for help. This might be a wonderful time to explore more formal meditation study, remembering that mediation and mindfulness actually restore your energy levels. During winter, we may be naturally encouraged to look within, to reflect or to set goals. Be sure to talk with a trusted friend or to reach out for professional help if these reflections cause issues to arise within you that are unexpected or difficult to deal with. Seek the help of your yoga or meditation teacher for appropriate practices to try. It is most important to start with breathing as an antidote to nervous system irregularity. Not all pranayama practices are appropriate for everyone so just as your physical yoga practice should be individualised, so, too should your breathing. Your yoga teacher is there to support you in your endeavours so ask for guidance. Try mentioning your concerns to your teacher prior to class and they may be able to factor in a practice during class, just for you.
Australian Yoga Academy